Thursday, February 02, 2012

Magdagate: Another Mortal Wound for Irish Journalism

You can’t have a democracy without a free press. The biggest danger to Irish sovereignty isn’t the bailout; it’s the absence of a free and functioning press.

Why do you need a free press? You need a free press to hold the powerful to account. To tell people what their leaders are doing and saying on their behalf, to interpret it, to encourage discussion and to ensure that, when the people go to the polls, they are as informed as they can possibly be.

The Irish media are failing badly in this regard. Because the country is so small, it’s always been difficult to have a fully impartial media. Unfortunately, the past year has seen such a calamitous fall in standards that it is now at a stage where the main check to governance of the country is hors de combat, and that is a crisis in any democracy.

RTÉ let itself down on the double. Firstly, the extraordinary libel of Father Kevin Reynolds on Prime Time, and secondly, the scuppering of the Seán Gallagher Presidential campaign by a tweet that was sent from a clearly bogus account. Either is a scandal. The combination of both is mind-boggling as regards standards in a publicly funded national broadcaster.

Today FM disgraced itself in its treatment of Sam Smyth. God only knows what goes on editorially in Newstalk, other than to remark if Prime Time wanted to do a States of Fear II, Marconi House would be a good place to set it. Allegedly.

The Irish Times let itself down very badly indeed in its attempt to re-write history in the sad case of the death of Kate Fitzgerald. They probably know it and the libel laws don’t help, but it doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t make it right at all.

But even in the light of all this, there is something about the “Magda” story in yesterday’s Irish Independent that is particularly worrying. These are the facts: the Indo found an interview in a Polish magazine with a Polish woman who spoke about life in Ireland. The Indo printed the story as the woman having a big laugh at the dumb Paddies who are paying her way.

It would be the perfect newspaper story, if it weren’t for one pesky detail. It’s sensational, it’s got water-cooler appeal, and it rings a bell for people. There’s a whole generation of people who came home from J1s laughing at the Yanks and telling stories of the scams they pulled so it was only reasonable to assume that the new Irish were telling the same stories. And now here was proof.

The one pesky detail is that the story in the Indo bears no relation to the original Polish story. This is the Indo story; this is the Polish original, translated into English by the John Murray show on RTÉ Radio One. There is no basis for the Indo story in the Polish original. None at all. It’s all rubbish. Every word.

So how did it get printed? One of two ways. Either the Independent’s editorial process is so incredibly bad that they really don’t care whether or what they print has any basis in reality at all. The second possibility is worse. The second possibility is that they knew full well what was in the Polish original, and didn’t care.

If the article isn’t true, so what? Nobody’s named, therefore nobody’s libeled, therefore nobody can sue. It’s win-win. Sure they’ll be some yap about it but it’ll sell papers and the Indo will get a reputation as the paper that prints what others are too scared or – hah! – too “politically correct” to share with the nation.

The media is failing to self-regulate. No-one in the media will take on a powerful media group because who knows when the day will come when that somebody may need a new job and hope for food from a hand that they’ve bitten.

So journalists end up in the position of men in the women and children’s lifeboats – they feel terrible about the destruction of their profession, but they prefer it to drowning, thanks all the same.

That’s not good enough. Irish sovereignty is in greater danger from the absence of a free press than from the Troika, who only want their money back. Don’t let media cynicism take your freedom away. Don’t let it!